A timely production of Shakespeare’s King John is on at the Rose in Kingston, just a year after the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and playing through the weeks before Britain votes on staying or leaving the EU.
It is not an easy play to do but director Trevor Nunn succeeds, helped by a strong and entertaining cast.
Three hours of lies and plotting take us to the heart of the perils of power. Like all Shakespeare’s tragedies there are plenty of deaths but it is the laugh-out-loud comedy that Nunn has brought out of King John that is the great surprise.
The plot is pretty complex. The potential problem of endless exits and entries, that can distract the audience from action, is solved by keeping most of the large cast on stage for much of the time especially in the first half. And when played right, as here, the complexity simply enhances the extraordinary wit of the playwright.
A simple, wooden set and traditional costumes allow us to focus on the beautiful, witty language, all in verse like Richard II. But on top of this is some clever use of video, reportage and television screens which bridge that world to ours.
The Magna Carta is not actually mentioned, even once. Instead we see the darker side of King John who is fighting to secure his throne against the machinations of King Philip of France, who believes John’s young nephew Arthur, son of his late older brother, is the true heir. The place of women, of mothers, nurturing ambition for the throne is clear. The play revolves around these dynamics, as well as John’s battle with the Pope through his legate, Cardinal Pandolf. John is excommunicated for appointing an Archbishop of Canterbury in defiance of Rome. Arthur is all too aware of being a defenceless boy whose very existence represents a threat to the legitimacy of a monarch.
Like others who have attempted this play, Nunn has solved the problems around the plot by inserting extra material from an earlier play, The Troublesome Reign of King John. Some scholars believe this was part-written by Shakespeare, and others hold it was by another playwright but was Shakespeare’s main source for King John. Whatever the truth of it, the additions add coherence to the original although perhaps a way could have been found to make it a little shorter.
Stand-out performances were from Howard Charles, charismatic and bubbling with power as the bastard Philip Faulconbridge. Stephen Kennedy’s Hubert was shockingly believable. Jamie Ballard’s King John was a maddening “mother’s boy”, ruthless in his deceit and tyranny. The raw emotion and ambition of the two warring mothers, Maggie Steed as Queen Elinor and Lisa Dillon as Constance, was edge-of-seat gripping. Sebastian Croft, who alternates with Harry Marcus as Arthur, showed flair and maturity, eliciting sniffles in the audience as he pleaded for his life with Hubert in the dungeon, begging him not to put out his eyes as ordered by King John. Arthur survives Hubert but dies nonetheless by accident. John is poisoned by a monk. Henry becomes King. The wit, intrigue, murder and ambition make this old play relevant anew in our modern age.
Review by Ruth Gledhill
By William Shakespeare
Director: Trevor Nunn; Set and Costume Designer: Mark Friend; Concept Set Design: John Napier; Lighting Designer: Paul Pyant; Sound Designer: Fergus O’Hare; Composer/Arranger: Corin Buckeridge; Casting Director: Ginny Schiller
Trevor Nunn returns to the Rose to direct Jamie Ballard as King John, Howard Charles as Philip the Bastard, Lisa Dillon as Constance and Maggie Steed as Queen Eleanor.
The cast is completed by Ignatius Anthony (Austria/Bigot), Joe Bannister (Lewis The Dauphin), Burt Caesar (Pandolph), Tom Chapman (Robert Faulconbridge/Prince Henry), Elisabeth Hopper (Blanche), Stephen Kennedy (Hubert), Dominic Mafham (Salisbury), Chris Andrew Mellon (Citizen), Dale Rapley (Philip Of France) Miles Richardson (Pembroke), Carmen Rodriguez (Lady Faulconbridge), David Shelley (Chatillion/ Melun), Jon Tarcy (Messenger/Monk), Harry Marcus and Sebastian Croft (Prince Arthur).
The production marks Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary and will be the penultimate play in Nunn’s undertaking to direct all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays. King John opens on 18 May at Rose Theatre Kingston, with previews from 13 May, until 5 June 2016.
Richard the Lionheart is dead. His youngest brother John has become King of England despite claims from the French that the throne should go to his nephew, Prince Arthur. As war is declared between England and France an inheritance dispute is brought before the King by Richard’s illegitimate son, Philip the Bastard.
With scheming, ruthless politics and some of Shakespeare’s most striking characters – this is a classic that feels contemporary in its strong parallels to modern day Britain. A unique opportunity to see this rarely performed history play brought to life on the stage.